Othello vs. Pericles, or: Will Shakespeare, pioneering globalizer
Jim Rutter of Broad Street Review
April 12, 2008
Every spring, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and the Lantern Theater offer competing productions of the Bard’s work. Last year, both simultaneously performed The Taming of the Shrew; this month, both offer equally tragic tales, the Festival producing the little-seen Pericles to the Lantern’s Othello. But the two productions— one full of subtle artistry, and the other a poorly played screaming match—couldn’t be more different. Yet while these productions lie worlds apart in dramatic power, together they offer one surprising and subtle reminder of Shakespeare’s continuing legacy and importance.
In both plays, everyone who suffers, suffers unjustly. Pericles (Damon Bonetti), the proud young Prince of Tyre, sails to Antioch to win the prized daughter of Antiochus (Buck Schirner), only to discover that she’s already involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. As Pericles flees home, Antiochus hires an assassin to pursue him, so Pericles must roam the ancient world, sailing the Mediterranean until a storm capsizes his ship, leaving him a beggar on the shores of Pentapolis.
Here—in fight choreographer J. Alex Cordaro’s intensely staged six-on-one quarterstaff battle— Pericles successfully wins the hand of the Princess Thaisa (Christie Parker), only to see her die in childbirth while sailing for home (doctors do say not to travel). Later, a former king and queen he had saved from starvation in Tarsus lead Pericles to believe that his own daughter Marina (Melissa Dunphy) had died under mysterious circumstances, marking the final blow in a series of torments and reprieves that cripples him emotionally for the remainder of the play.
At the Lantern, the envy of Iago (Peter Pryor) at being passed over for a promotion causes him to poison the mind of Othello (Frank X) against both the undeserving lieutenant Cassio and Othello’s wife Desdemona, while also setting up the eager dupe Roderigo (Anthony Lawton) to shoulder most of the blame. Though trusted as an “honest man,” Iago lies and manipulates all those around him, and uses a piece of false evidence—a purloined handkerchief—to drive Othello’s jealousy from accusations to murder.
A would-be pimp’s instructions
Double casting abounds in both productions, and both employ incredibly dexterous actors capable of fleshing out multiple roles. Arthur Kendall and John Morrison both contribute strong performances in minor (though important) parts in Pericles, upstaged only by the creepy performance of Buck Schirner. Wearing gold fingernails and speaking in a thin high voice, Schirner is frighteningly convincing as the incestuous father Antiochus, and equally vicious and amusing later as Marina’s would-be pimp, hysterically delivering his instructions on how a whore should behave (e.g., “Act fearfully in what you do willingly”).
The Lantern employs no less talented actors in this regard, with Seth Reichgott commanding the stage as both the Duke of Venice and Lodovico. Sarah Sanford once again proves herself an absolute marvel; playing both Iago’s wife Emilia and Cassio’s love interest Bianca, she skillfully conveys two integral parts, and manages to create in her Emilia the most tender and tragic moment of the play.
If only the leads—especially at the Lantern—had paid such careful attention to the ensemble’s stagecraft.
No great man, no great fall
Bonetti begins Pericles full of joyful zest and youthful pride, weathering each misfortune with a regal bearing that’s capable of bouncing back with renewed force from every blow. Frank X, on the other hand, gives a soft-shoe performance of Othello that lacks the majesty of the role and offers no reason to think that all Venetians would entrust their safety to this foreigner. Unlike Bonetti, whose early charisma magnifies his stage presence, X waves his hands about playfully, demonstrating no military poise or consistency of character that would cause anyone to remark, “He had a nature that passion could not shake.” While some critics (like Broad Street Review’s Robert Zaller) take Shakespeare at his word, I—not to mention anyone seeing this play for the first time— need to see a great man in order to see a great tragic fall.
In this regard, X gives only half a performance. Once Iago provides Othello with the evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity, X’s performance flourishes in displaying genuine hurt and vulnerability (qualities he made evident in King Lear and Master Harold and the Boys). And where X excels, Bonetti as Pericles staggers, failing to provide enough of a contrast between the great man he was and the pitiful state to which misfortune has reduced him.
To be sure, Shakespeare’s “problem-play” shifts the focus from Pericles to Marina in the second half and only gives Pericles one scene in which to make this quality evident. But taken together, Bonetti as Pericles and X as Othello provide a complete performance of tragedy; apart, only Bonetti succeeds at all in showing the effects of a grave injustice— because before he showed a pauper, he showed a prince first.
Searching for a villain
If there’s a “pants-role” in drama, the Lantern found it in Peter Pryor’s interpretation of Iago. Besides Schirner’s villainy in Pericles, and Kelly Jennings’s vicious Dionyza, the limitations of the Shakespeare Festival’s stage prevent the company from showing the actual tempests that capsize Pericles’s ship and take his wife (though Jerold Forsyth’s lightning and Fabian Obispo’s sound design render the storms believable).
But Shakespeare gives Iago long monologues that convey his inner wickedness, and the Bard certainly intended audiences to see something more than a grown-up Dennis the Menace, who plays with balloons and childishly clasps his hands over his mouth when he indicts Cassio for fighting. When Iago remarks, “Men should be as they seem,” I don’t think Shakespeare intended that line ironically, and I certainly don’t think that Shakespeare wanted even the most callous audiences to chuckle and laugh as a comedic Iago goes about plotting the destruction of good men and women. Will Ferrell might get away with spoofing this role, but I sat back and wondered what happened to the venom that Pryor so adroitly displayed as the equally malicious Richard III. (Unlike the Inquirer’s Wendy Rosenfield, I’m unwilling to give either Pryor or X current credit for past performances.)
Whatever intensity and wickedness Pryor omits from his Othello, director Charles McMahon certainly tries to make up for in the rest of the performances, with only Sanford showing how to display rage and anger without screaming. Sottile and Lawton seem to believe they’re still in the Lantern’s earlier Martin McDonough scream-and-slugfest Lonesome West, and the consequent effect of severely heightened emotions annoys more than it intensifies the drama.
At the Shakespeare Festival, director Carmen Khan fashions exactly the type of subtlety and artistry that’s absent at the Lantern, using small moments to weave together the episodes of Pericles’s saga. With just a smile, Parker’s Thaisa enchants, and she and Bonetti’s Pericles fall in love over a dance without a single word— only expressions— passing between them. And though both productions contain original music, Obispo’s arrangements for Pericles elevate the choral chanting to an intensity I’ve rarely seen outside of opera, while McMahon plays Nick Rye’s booming compositions for Othello as if he’s testing the new bass amplifier in his car.
Shakespeare’s global reach
But perhaps the subtlest lesson in both productions comes from Shakespeare himself. Though Pericles is often compared to Job—who suffered an equal “pattern of painful adventures”— he weathers each new misfortune by adopting a stoical attitude toward life, acknowledging that “time gives us what it will,” and that fortune “must be as it is.”
When you consider that these stoical attitudes are Greek interpretations of Indian and Far-Eastern philosophies brought by traders to the Peloponnesus after Alexander’s conquests, you can’t help marveling at Shakespeare’s ability to integrate the products of minds and cultures far removed from his native England. In Othello and Pericles, an audience can see Moorish oaths and characters, the customs of Tarsus, Cypriot holidays, and the religion of Ephesus, all revived on stage by the imagination of a man who never left the island on which he was born.
Yes, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other sources—a form of cultural inheritance made possible by trade. But these he repaid with huge dividends on the original.
And as with the commerce that brought foreign religions and philosophies to ancient Greece, Shakespeare inherited a world made possible as much by Marco Polo and Arab traders as by Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake. Had Shakespeare not melded the physical station of Britain with this enriched landscape of his own mind, he couldn’t have enriched all of us, showing how the globalization of his day can still broaden our humanity centuries later.
And without a similar global trade today—one that freely trades in products, art, and ideas—Philadelphians would not get to see the tender and nuanced performance of Australian native Melissa Dunphy in her local professional debut as Pericles’s daughter Marina. Like a mind closed to new ideas or cultures, restrictions on art or commerce that denied her talent from coming here to find work would make us all poorer indeed.